Every now and again, I’ve enjoyed listening to This American Life from Chicago Public Media. About a month ago, I heard a story that really saddened me. The episode was called “Fear of Sleep” which originally aired August 8, 2008. For the last act, “A Small Taste Of The Big Sleep,” several people were interviewed about their ultimate fear (which only seems compounded by sleep)—death. Here are a few of their recalled experiences:
“You’re cornered. You’re a trapped animal who’s like sweating and waiting for its head to be chopped off.”
“I can feel time whizzing by. And I’m trying to hold on to something generally. So I usually start grabbing the walls or like clinging to the pillow. And I’m like this isn’t going to go away. I need to hold this. I need to hold on to time. I need to stand in this river and just not move.”
“…it’s a kind of very primitive feeling. You have to just, like, flee from this totally horrible thing that’s happening to you. But there is nowhere you can flee. And understanding at the same time that what you’re fleeing and trying to run away from is the complete cessation of you.”
“When this wakes me up in the middle of the night it’s because I’m right…it’s going to happen. That’s why. Because that’s reality. And just for some reason I can see it.”
“I cry. And I just get really sad…I try to breath really deeply. And I just think…there’s nothing I can do. Like the terror is overtaken by just sadness. I just want it to not be true.”
I’m not making light of these experiences. I’m genuinely saddened because no one need fear death! The show ended with part of a poem. I longed for some word here that would comfort these people or give them the answer to their fears. But this was the only wisdom and comfort that was offered (taken from “Aubade” by Philip Larkin published in his Collected Poems):
“…the total emptiness forever, the sure extinction that we travel to and shall be lost in always. Not to be here, not to be anywhere, and soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
“This is a special way of being afraid no trick dispels. Religion used to try, that vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die, and specious stuff that says no rational being can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing that this is what we fear– no sight, no sound, no touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, nothing to love or link with, the anesthetic from which none come round.”
These poor souls will find no comfort here. But they might take comfort in the fact that Larkin couldn’t be more wrong. Enter a worldview with a purposeful Creator God, and feel the pure, raw hope it brings (taken from Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl by N. D. Wilson):
“There was a time when men and women understood death more fully, when mortality was never ignored. Men and women executed their endings better then….They, like Solomon, knew that we are but vapor, that we are here for but a little while. We must exit the stage, down through traps, and let others traipse and sing, love and lose, fight and struggle above us.
“When we die, wherever or whenever that might be…God is also there, shaping the story, off the stage and on the stage….To His eyes, you never leave the stage. You do not cease to exist. It is a chapter ending, an act, not the play itself. Look to Him. Walk toward Him. The cocoon is a death, but not a final death. The coffin can be a tragedy, but not for long. There will be butterflies.
I will die, and when I do—whether it be in my bed as age creeps over me, or struck by lightning, a meteor, or a UPS truck—when my body and soul find their divorce, His hand will be the one that cuts the thread and shows me the path He [Jesus] blazed through tragedy. His finger will point to the parade.”
True religion does not try to pretend we never die. Rather it tries to point us to (and prepare us for) the greater reality which death unveils. The question then is whom will you believe: those who pretend that there is no God and that this earth-bound existence is the greatest reality we can experience (i.e. Philip Pullman in The Amber Spyglass), or those who point us away from these “shadowlands” to the real God and the very real and substantial life that He holds and offers (i.e. C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce)? Your answer will have grave consequences for how well you execute your stage exit…and your quality of sleep in the meantime.
If you want to make a death-defying exit, then listen to the One who tasted death and conquered it for all who will follow Him:
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me….For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jesus in John 6:38, 40).